Jun Joon sprinted down the causeway from the city to the palace. The earth was shaking as it had never shaken before. Buildings were crumbling. He needed to get the Great King Telkome out of the Palace of Atalan and take the royal family to safety. He suddenly heard Lan Laan behind him. “Jun Joon,” shouted the man, “I don’t think we can make it!”
Jun Joon turned his head. “It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all!” he shouted back. A pillar fell in front of him. Debris filled the air but still he kept on. A man suddenly ran from the front of the palace. It was Kin Kiin.
“Go back!” ordered the man running at him. “The king is gone! Get to shore while you still can!”
Jun Joon slowed down and the three men drew close to each other. “What do you mean the king is gone?” asked Lan Laan.
“I can’t find him anywhere,” answered Kin Kiin. “I searched the entire palace. The entire royal family is nowhere to be found!”
“Then let us hope our legs take us to shore,” said Lan Laan. “This shaking is going to destroy the entire city!”
“If not to shore, I hope you know how to swim,” added Jun Joon as he began to run back along the causeway. “Prophecy is being fulfilled!”
The causeway began to shake harder and they could see segments of the stone structure collapse into the bay. Suddenly there was a strong rumbling and with a tremendous crash, the land in the distance pushed up and cracked in half. The causeway sunk beneath them as the entire city was plunged into the water. They would have to swim to safety.
It was a long way to the new shoreline and they had to take frequent rests. Night was falling by the time they reached the land. Here they could see crowds of others who had managed to escape Atalan before the city had sunken under the waves.
They were helped from the water by one of the captains in the army. “I am Captain Brentok,” said the man. “Did you see any others as you were swimming?”
Jun Joon shook his head as the water dripped from his face and clothes. “We went to save the king but none of the royal family was to be found. How many do we have here?”
“I am not sure,” replied the Captain. “Groups of people are scattered all the way to Gorraf and possibly beyond.”
Kin Kiin sighed and sat down on the ground. “King Telkome is gone, the highest ranking soldier left is a captain, and the people of Atalan are scattered or dead.” He held up his hand and the others could see him wearing two rings instead of one. “The king’s ring was all I could find.”
“A king departed, a sword forgotten. The light submerged, a land divided,” said Jun Joon. “Those two prophecies have both been fulfilled this afternoon.”
“Then that leaves only one,” replied Lan Laan. “Three races separate, a lesser to guide.” The others nodded.
“Get some rest,” ordered Jun Joon. “Tomorrow we’ll assess the damage and see if we can find a new home for these people.” He leaned back and looked up at the rising moon. “After that we can discuss prophecy.”
The next morning, Captain Brentok brought them some cooked fish. “This is the best I could scrounge up since we have no supplies.”
“Thank you,” said Kin Kiin. “This is better than nothing.”
Lan Laan sat up. “If only we could have something sweeter!” he lamented. “I still smell of seawater after yesterday’s swim and now you bring me fish to eat?”
The others laughed. “I suggest you adjust to living without the amenities of the palace,” said Jun Joon. “We may be without a king for a very long time.”
“I know,” admitted Lan Laan. “I just wish for life to return to normal.”
Kin Kiin turned to the Captain. “Did any soldiers besides you survive yesterday?”
“I managed to find a group of twenty,” answered Captain Brentok. “Any others that survived were scattered as the common people.”
Jun Joon frowned. “What do you have them doing right now?” he asked.
“I have sent three of them to Gorraf and three to Amehtana to request aid for the people,” answered the Captain. “The rest I sent to inspect the great crack in the land.”
They all turned and looked north. Dust still rose from the gash where the land had split.
“I cannot begin to imagine the force needed to make mountains from land that had once been flat,” stated Lan Laan.
“Prophecy is all the force you need,” said Jun Joon. He suddenly stood up. “Hey, where are those people going?” They all noticed a group of people slowly making their way inland toward the new valley.
“They are looking for places to rebuild their homes,” answered the Captain. “I would have asked them to stay but I have nothing to sway them with.”
“I say let them go,” suggested Kin Kiin. “There is no way to stop them from investigating the destruction firsthand. If they think they can survive, I say let them.”
“I still do not approve of it,” replied Jun Joon. “The ground may still be unstable and many may be killed.”
“Some things cannot be stopped,” said Lan Laan. “The world has changed and the people will adapt.”
Jun Joon sighed and sat down. He knew it was true. “The line of the Great Kings has been broken. Tanarad will now become a loose alliance of towns and villages.”
“Panei will come to our aid,” said Captain Brentok.
“It does not matter,” replied Jun Joon. “No citizen of Tanarad would bow down to a lesser king while prophecy still mentions the return of the king.”
The others nodded in agreement. “It may be a long wait,” said Kin Kiin. “Perhaps we should plan what to do in the King’s absence.” He looked down at the second ring he now wore. “Perhaps we should fulfill the next prophecy. Three races separate.”
Jun Joon lowered his head and thought a moment before looking back at Kin Kiin. “Only the Lunari could split the ring. We must take it to Iswa.”
Lan Laan started laughing. “You have got to be joking!” he laughed. “No man has ever passed through the Dark Forest.”
“It would definitely be a first if we succeeded,” added Kin Kiin.
“It must be done,” claimed Jun Joon. “If the enemy were to obtain the ring, the world would be lost. If the ring is separated and hidden in three remote locations, there is no chance the enemy would be able to find the ring.”
“Is the power of the ring usable by anyone other than the Great Kings?” asked Lan Laan.
Jun Joon and Kin Kiin both shook their heads. “We dare not attempt it,” said Kin Kiin. “As Jun Joon already said, the ring must be taken to Iswa. Perhaps the Lunari will tell us what to do with it.”
“And what of the sword which is mentioned in future prophecy?” interrupted Captain Brentok.
The three men looked at each other. “This presents another problem,” stated Jun Joon. “Men will search the ruins in hope of finding the sword and claiming the throne.”
“We cannot allow that,” added Lan Laan.
“No,” agreed Kin Kiin. “Captain Brentok, inform the villages of Tanarad that if anyone pulls the sword of the king from the ruins, they cannot have the throne. We will seek out the Lunari and ask their guidance on this matter.”
The Captain bowed. “I will do as you ask. Unfortunately, I believe you will need to travel to Itragoni if you wish to board a ship to Panei. We currently do not have the facilities for them to dock.”
“You need not worry about us,” said Jun Joon. “We are grown men and will be able to care for ourselves. It may take awhile but we can walk to Itragoni.”
Kin Kiin stood up. “We travel light,” he said.
“Not that we have much of a choice after losing everything yesterday,” added Jun Joon as he too stood up.
“At least our rank and influence will aid in obtaining food and passage on a ship,” said Lan Laan as Kin Kiin helped him to his feet.
Jun Joon turned to Captain Brentok. “Thank you for your help, Captain. I want you to report to Commander Krean in Amehtana and inform him of what we are planning. We do not know when or if we will return.” The Captain bowed and turned to leave.
“If we return?” asked Lan Laan.
Kin Kiin looked at the younger man. “Hope for the best, expect the worst. Since the beginning of our history, many have died in the fulfillment of prophecy.”
“Look on the bright side,” suggested Jun Joon. “We could have all been killed yesterday. I see no reason why we should fear the future.” He turned and started to walk toward the northwest. Kin Kiin followed.
“I may not enjoy it,” said Lan Laan as he too started walking, “but I will definitely do my part.”
It took them just over a week to hike all the way to Itragoni since they had to stop for supplies at Gorraf and also ended up having to backtrack part of their steps when they realized a cliff had risen north of Gorraf and they were stuck on the wrong side. Once they reached Itragoni, they discovered another problem. The docks of the coastal city had risen above the water level in the recent earthquake. However, ships were anchoring offshore and boats traveled between the ships and the shore while a new dock was being built. It was another week before they were able to secure passage aboard a ship. As they sailed toward Panei, they could see the northern part of Tanarad had become mountainous during the earthquake. At the gash, there was a cavern into which water now flowed. It was two days before they landed at Elekim. By then, the four kings of the nations of Panei had gathered with the intent of coordinating aid for Tanarad. The three men were warmly welcomed by the kings.
Jun Joon explained that they needed to travel to Iswa to consult with the Lunari. King Ningamar of Vernon claimed they would be unsuccessful but King Fardas of Nerak said if they could not be turned back, they should travel to Nerak Nitil and turn west. From there they could travel straight to Iswa. Even so, King Fardas did not expect them to make it. Jun Joon thanked the kings for their advice but explained they would be traveling up the River Kis hoping it would take them past many of the dangers rumored to exist in the Dark Forest.
From Elekim they traveled northwest around the Skaa Desert before they headed north. Two weeks later, they were at Dybrum on the banks of the River Kis. The walked out on one of the docks and Jun Joon greeted the man in charge. “My name is Jun Joon and these are my companions Kin Kiin and Lan Laan. We would like to borrow a boat, if it is possible,” he explained.
“My name is Toangor,” said the man. “The boats I sell are of the same type used by the great Kohngor when he killed a na’karden over four thousand years ago.”
Jun Joon smiled. “I have heard the tale,” he said. “Kohngor built a boat of thick wood and strong nail but ship builders said it would fail. I would hope these here are built by someone who actually knows the craft.”
“These boats can last through any storm,” boasted Toangor. “Unfortunately, there are no storms on the horizon for you to test my claims.”
“I think I have an even harder test for your boats,” said Jun Joon. “I am wondering how far the river goes into the Dark Forest.”
Toangor breathed in sharply. “I do not know what thrives under the darkness but if one of my boats survived, that would be worth boasting about!”
“Think about it, friend,” said Jun Joon. “The three of us must get to Iswa and one of your boats may be able to aid us. I do understand the loss you will incur if we fail but I assure you, we will succeed and if we lose the boat, I will personally repay you.”
“You cannot be serious!” stammered Toangor. “You must have already heard that those who enter the Dark Forest never come out.”
“If you are unable to assist us, is there another shipbuilder you could recommend?” asked Jun Joon.
Toangor shook his head. “You will not find boats better than mine. Still, you must be crazy to desire to go into the Dark Forest.”
Kin Kiin held up his hand and showed the ring to Toangor. “We are not average travelers. It would do you well not to impede us for the ring must go to the Lunari at Iswa.”
Toangor laughed as he looked at the ring. “You can take my best boat,” he said, pointing toward the end of the dock. “I’m just trying to save your lives.”
Jun Joon thanked Toangor. “I appreciate your concern for our safety but we really must brave the Dark Forest. If we survive, I will come back to thank you.” He bowed and started walking to the boat.
Soon they were sailing up the River Kis. It would take them a few days but they had the wind to push them.
It was dark under the dense foliage. They slowly rowed forward with only the light of a single torch to guide them. The banks of the river were lost under the thick weeds and they brushed aside the low hanging vines they passed beneath. More than once they started the timid stickmoths.
“Have you ever seen a centipede scurry across your floor?” Jun Joon abruptly asked from the bow.
“They send shivers up my spine,” admitted Lan Laan. “They move like a barely visible wave.”
“Stop the boat,” ordered Jun Joon, pulling out his sword. “Small ones have always set me ill at ease but there is one the size of my arm on the vine ahead of us.”
There was a rustle in the branches above them and Jun Joon watched as the giant centipede suddenly rushed along the vine toward the riverbank. It had not gone far when another plant suddenly moved with a loud crack and trapped the creature between two strong branches. The sharp spines cut into the large creature and it began to writhe as it slowly succumbed to the poison of the plant.
Kin Kiin looked up into the darkness above him. “I wonder what scared it.”
“I don’t know,” said Jun Joon, “but now I am wondering how many of those thorn plants are lying in wait for us to pass within their grasp.” He cut the vine in front of them and watched the dying creature as they slowly floated forward.
Kin Kiin shook his head. “This is an unnatural darkness. This forest is evil and I doubt our presence goes unnoticed.”
There was a fluttering of wings and the torch was torn from Jun Joon’s grasp and thrown into the river. “You are correct,” whispered several voices in unison.
“Who are you?” shouted Lan Laan into the darkness. “What do you want with us?”
“Prophecy stands before us,” answered the soft voices. “Only we can take you safely through the forest.”
“How can we trust you?” asked Kin Kiin.
“We cannot see in the light of Tathel or we could have brought him.”
“Tathel the Lunari,” whispered Jun Joon. “I cannot see and aid is being offered. Whether trustworthy or not, I will trust you.” He put away his sword.
Moments later he felt strong claws wrap around his arms and he was lifted from the boat. He was glad he could not see where he was being taken since the creature was swerving rapidly. More than once he could feel branches barely miss him. By the time the claws around his arms were growing rather uncomfortable, the darkness began to thin and he could make out the shapes of the trees around him.
The creature began to descend and set him down on the ground. “This is as close as I can take you,” it whispered. Within moments, Kin Kiin and Lan Laan were set down beside him.
“I’m glad that’s over,” stated Lan Laan.
“Let’s go,” said Jun Joon. “We are almost there.”
Several minutes later, they stepped into a wide clearing covered with tiny black stones and sparse grass. In the center was a large pyramid-shaped structure made of a single piece of rock. Two large crescents were suspended on top of the structure and smoke rose between them.
“The temple of the Lunari!” Kin Kiin observed as they walked forward. “It is even greater than I would have expected.”
When they reached the temple, they began to walk up the large staircase. At the top, they found two figures made of light. “Tathel and Dezhothokh greet you,” said one with a bow.
Kin Kiin took the ring off his hand and held it toward the Lunari. “We believe that only you can separate the three races.”
Dezhothokh took the ring. “To sacrifice myself for the fulfillment of prophecy is an honor.” He held the ring between his hands and the temple began to shake and rumble. The ring grew brighter and the light of Dezhothokh began to fade from his back as it moved toward the ring. As the last of his light faded from his arms, he let out a long scream. Finally the light of Dezhothokh was no more and a faint outline of the figure remained. He held out the ring and it separated into three segments. “What I have done, only prophecy can mend.”
“The three rings must now be put in places where they cannot be obtained by any other than the one who will come to combine them,” said Tathel. “Lan Laan will take the silver moon to Hayve and leave it in the cold of the highest peak. Kin Kiin will take the golden moon to Tayve and leave it where even the giants cannot reach. Jun Joon will take the sun and Mayve and leave it between the mountains of the deep.”
“I wish there was an easier way through the Dark Forest,” said Lan Laan as he took the ring of the silver moon.
Tathel laughed. “Perhaps you would rather go over than through?”
The faint figure of Dezhothokh turned toward the north. “Hefelowa Alst filraw Mayve. Lan Laan hefelwarilar Rewt filraw Mount Chozea. Kin Kiin hefelwarilar Delp filraw uarflar ealf Tayve. Jun Joon hefelwarilar Kigh filowefel Mayve. Erom’Reven filraw uarflar ealf Tayve ah elufiar uahilio welhiflara lararilow Nasad.”
There was a brief moment of silence following this short spiel. Finally Lan Laan broke the silence. “What did you say?”
“In a matter of hours, you will need to spread out in the clearing,” explained Tathel. “Dragons will bear you to your destinations.”
“No thanks,” said Lan Laan turning to go back down the steps. “I’d rather walk.”
Jun Joon grabbed Lan Laan’s shoulder and stopped him. “Who are you to reject the aid of the Lunari? You will go with the dragon just like the rest of us.”
Kin Kiin sighed. “I’d just as soon leave him to an intimate although short-lived relationship with the plants of the Dark Forest at this rate.”
Both Kin Kiin and Lan Laan suddenly found themselves lifted from the floor. “It is wrong to wish death on another,” said Tathel. “Kin Kiin, you will not return from Tayve.” The head of the Lunari turned toward Lan Laan. “You were created to serve the Lunari. We will allow you to live but it will be your choice to stay and die on Mount Chozea or to return as an outcast who refused us.” They were set back down. “You will all do as you are told.”
Several hours later, the dragons came for them.
Lan Laan watched as the mountain in front of him grew larger the closer as the dragon took him toward it. The air was cold and even his shivering was of no use as the wind struggled to pull him from the dragon’s grasp. When they were close to the mountain, the dragon began to swiftly fly up the side and set him on a small precipice not far from the peak. He watched as the dragon dove back down and flew into the clouds far below.
He shivered violently as he struggled to climb up to the peak. It ended in a finger-shaped piece of rock and he wondered if it was like that because of prophecy. He had no more feeling in his hands as he slid back down to the precipice.
There was a doorway in the side of the mountain and he entered to find himself standing in a small chamber. At the far end was a staircase which led down into the mountain. Lan Laan did not have any light so he began to grope his way down.
Lan Laan slowly made his way down the seemingly unending staircase. Finally he found another small chamber. A faint red glow shone through several holes carved in one of the walls. The air was warmer and he sat down to rest. He closed his eyes. He did not know the time when he opened his eyes. He slowly stood to his feet and turned the corner to continue down the stairs.
Lan Laan screamed and fell backwards as he found himself looking at a white face in the shadows.
The man laughed and stepped forward. On his bald head was an outline of a dragon which stretched from front to back with the wings to the sides. “How nice of you to visit me so soon after my awakening,” he smiled. “Please, come further in with me to where it is warmer.”
They began walking down the stairs. “You are neither man nor Lunari,” said Lan Laan. “Who are you?”
“You are right to say I am neither,” answered the figure. “I am one who has come to do great things in this world. I have had many names but in this world I will be called Voth.” He paused. “Now tell me, what are you doing on my mountain?”
“I had to place the ring of the silver moon on top of the mountain,” Lan Laan answered. “How much further do these stairs go?”
“We have several more hours left,” replied Voth. “Tell me more about the ring.”
“It is one of three parts,” answered Lan Laan. “It is to remain at the peak of this mountain to be found by the one who will fulfill the last prophecies. I must ask that you do not take it for yourself.”
Voth chuckled. “You need not worry about me. I will not take it. In fact, I will ensure it is well guarded.”
“How do you intend to do that?”
“I already told you I have come to fulfill prophecy,” explained Voth. “In time that will gain me many servants and I will have them guard the ring from all who attempt to obtain it.”
“How will you fulfill prophecy?” asked Lan Laan.
“I will show you when we reach the bottom,” answered Voth.
They continued downward for what seemed like ages. Finally they stepped onto a ledge on the side of a gigantic cavern. “You need not want for warmth in here,” stated Voth as he led Lan Laan down a short stairway which wrapped around a huge stalagmite. There were piles of parchment and crates of unknown supplies scattered on an even larger ledge.
“What do you do in here?” asked Lan Laan as he looked around.
Voth walked over to the edge and looked down. “I have many plans to make before I fulfill prophecy.
“What prophecies will you fulfill?” Lan Laan asked as he walked over to Voth.
“Have you ever studied the stars?” asked Voth as he looked at a ring on his hand. It was a silver dragon with purple eyes.
“I know the names of some of the stars,” Lan Laan answered, “but I really don’t study the stars the way some people do.”
“Did you know that it is possible to predict the future by plotting the courses of the stars?”
“I knew it was possible for short amounts of time, but how long of a time are you referring to?”
“You may find it to be of interest that I can predict the stars at the time of the fulfillment of the final prophecy,” said Voth turning his head to show his smile. “In just under a thousand years, two dragons will be seen flying toward each other in the sky. A third will then appear and two will overcome the one. I am to be one dragon. I will give this ring to the one destined to become the second. I cannot say who the third dragon will be.”
Lan Laan stepped back and pulled out his sword. “You are no king yet you claim you will fulfill the final prophecy. I will kill you or die trying.” He swung his sword but Voth stopped the blade with his hand. Lan Laan’s eyes opened wide in fear as Voth easily pulled the sword from his hands and picked him up with his other arm.
“What a shame,” Voth sighed as he dangled Lan Laan over the edge of the ledge. The bright magma bubbled far below and the heat blew up past him. “You would have made a helpful servant. Perhaps the Barbidons will be more willing.” Lan Laan screamed as Voth let go.
Voth looked at the sword he was now holding. “No witnesses,” he muttered as he tossed the blade after the man.
Kin Kiin stood on the top of a huge tree where the dragon had set him down. It was so large even the leaves could support his weight. Still, he was very far above the ground and did not want to risk falling. As he set the ring down at the center of the tree, a shadow flew over him. He looked up to see a large bird swooping down at him. It landed on a leaf and started to walk toward him.
“This is my roost,” cawed the large bird. Its black feathers glistened in the bright sun. “Get out of my tree.”
“But I had to place a ring here,” defended Kin Kiin unsure of what else to say to the strangely talking bird.
The bird made a noise which sounded like a cough. “I am loath to share my nesting place with a man. If you will not go willingly, I will force you out.” The bird hopped forward and Kin Kiin stepped back.
“Could you at least carry me to the ground?” asked Kin Kiin. The bird did not listen and came toward him faster.
A large reptile watched from the ground as a bird flew from the top of the great tree carrying a man in its beak. The lizard moved from its hiding place into the open area by the river. The bird let go of the man. This would not be a filling meal, but it would at least be a tasty morsel. The beast began to fling its quills into the air to try and spear the man. One of the quills found its mark and soon the reptile was swallowing what was left after it fell to the ground.
The dragon set Jun Joon down in the center of Mayve. A second dragon had followed him and he realized Dezhothokh had come as well. He walked over to the faint figure. “Where should I hide the ring?” he asked.
“I will take it from here,” answered Dezhothokh. “You must return to Tanarad for you are cursed by prophecy.”
“You are the lesser to guide mentioned in prophecy and you will live until the final guidance is given.”
“To be the hand of prophecy is not a curse but an honor,” replied Jun Joon. “I will gladly do as you ask. What will become of you and the ring?”
“It will be the sun of a world until it is taken by the rightful king who will fulfill the final prophecies. The only way to the ring is to kill me and the only one who knows how is Tathel. My light will remain with the ring and I will appear in the guise of a neutral Lunari. Kigh will take you back to Amehtana.”
Jun Joon sighed. “How will I know what guidance to give?”
“The stars hold the future,” answered Dezhothokh, “but above all else, follow your heart.”
Jun Joon bowed. “Thank you for this honor. I will do as best I can.” He started walking toward the dragon which had brought him. It grabbed him and flew off toward Tanarad.
It was dark by the time Jun Joon was flying over the familiar land of Tanarad. The dragon set him down just outside the city and he slowly made his way through the streets. He finally found a tavern and stepped inside.
Several soldiers were standing by the bar and Jun Joon walked up beside them. “You look horrible,” observed one of the soldiers.
Jun Joon sighed as he recognized the soldier. “Captain Brentok, you’d look this bad too if you had stayed the night and morning in the Dark forest and then spent most of the day flying with dragons.”
“Jun Joon!” gasped the Captain. “I never expected to see you return. Where are Kin Kiin and Lan Laan?”
“We separated at Iswa,” answered Jun Joon. “Kin Kiin will not return and I cannot say for Lan Laan. However, I can say that everything has been taken care of by the Lunari.” He yawned. “I think I’ve been up about two days straight now. Is there anywhere I can sleep?”
The Captain handed him a cup of Josloy’s kendi. “Have a drink. I’ll see about getting you a bed for the night.”
Jun Joon nodded and sipped at the sweet tasting liquid as the Captain stepped out into the night. It was good to be home in Tanarad at last.